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To me, it’s the Taj Mahal

 

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On August 29, 2005, Eagle lost everything she owned when her house was covered by 28 feet of water. In early 2010, she cuts the ribbon for her new Habitat home in Waveland, Mississippi.

   

Ellen “Eagle” Finegan always enjoyed shooting photographs. After Hurricane Katrina washed everything she owned into the Gulf of Mexico, though, taking pictures became much more urgent.

“After Katrina, taking pictures was a way of coping with everything,” she said, standing in the parking lot of the Lowe’s in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where her first real home in five years was being loaded onto a tractor-trailer for transport to its concrete foundation five miles away in Bayside Park.

Finegan is among the first homeowners to benefit from a partnership with Lowe’s that allows Bay-Waveland Habitat for Humanity to convert Katrina cottages—the much-improved successor to the FEMA cottages—into permanent modular homes. The original cottage is removed from its mobile, placed on a permanent foundation and expanded by 200 feet, bringing the total living space to 1,000 square feet.

“To me, it’s the Taj Mahal,” Finegan said, beaming at the bright-pink house being hoisted carefully onto the truck.

Just minutes before the intricate move began, Finegan spoke to dozens of volunteers and local dignitaries who had gathered to formally dedicate her house.

“Volunteers rock!” she shouted from the front porch. “I’m still so overwhelmed. If it had not been for volunteers, this place would look almost the same as it did right after Katrina. What amazing people—giving, loving people.”

Finegan, 53, lived in Waveland in August 2005. Like many people who lived in that quiet coastal community, she lost everything in 28 feet of water.

“All my stuff is in the Gulf now,” she said, including some family antiques that had been brought from Ireland when they emigrated during the potato famine of the 1850s.

After Katrina, Finegan lived first in a tent in front of the Walmart where she worked, and then in a variety of makeshift shelters before finally settling into a 28-foot 1982 RV that she shared with a dog and two cats.

“On Aug. 28, 2005, I had a home and everything in that house that makes it a home,” Finegan said. “On Aug. 29, I had a T-shirt, a pair of shorts and a pair of sandals.

“From that day forward, many lessons were learned,” she said. “One of those lessons is that ‘shelter’ can be sitting in your drowned-out car for hours because you’re so afraid of a thunderstorm. Or it can be a blanket that an unnamed volunteer gave you that you still sleep with every day. But neither of those things is a home.

“This little pink cottage is a home. THIS is a home.”

Since 2006, this preconverted cottage has been parked on a patch of grass in the Lowe’s parking lot, where people were encouraged to come inside and look around. On moving day, Finegan invited people in for one last look-around. Propped on windowsills throughout the cottage were striking framed photographs, taken by Finegan.

Some of the shots capture dramatic coastal sunsets or other examples of the natural beauty of this region, while others show mountains of debris. All tell the story of the past five years.

Finegan said she is looking forward to her first meal that isn’t microwaved, and her first hot shower, as soon as she finishes her sweat-equity hours and moves into her newly refurbished home.

After Katrina, she was laid off from a job at Walmart, which she had held for seven years. She works part time now at Kmart, hoping to find full-time employment soon.

“If it has a door, I’ve applied there,” she said.

Meanwhile, volunteers lined up to buy all the photos Finegan had displayed in the cottage.